Benjamin Crump, Brandon Sklenar, Coke Daniels, Cory Hardrict, drama, Gregory Alan Williams, Jasmine Burke, Jaxon McHan, Karen, Keyon Harrold, Lorenzo Cromwell, Milly Sanders, movies, Norah Elin Murphy, reviews, Roger Dorman, Taryn Manning
August 30, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Coke Daniels
Culture Representation: Taking place in the Atlanta area, the dramatic film “Karen” features a cast of African American and white characters (with a few Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: An African American husband and wife are targeted for hate and harassment by a white racist neighbor named Karen.
Culture Audience: “Karen” will appeal primarily to people who are are interested in watching “train wreck” filmmaking with terrible dialogue and campy, over-the-top acting that make a mockery of the serious subjects of racism, police brutality and hate crimes.
Although the melodrama “Karen” wants to disguise itself as a film with a socially conscious message about racism, it’s really just a shameless and shoddily made racial exploitation flick. The screenplay and the acting are so horrendous that this entire trash pile movie comes across as a pathetic parody of real-life, damaging racist situations. Viewers of “Karen” might experience some damage too—damage to brain cells from watching this rotten mess.
Written and directed by Coke Daniels, “Karen” will definitely end up on some people’s “so bad it’s good” movie lists. But that’s if people are willing to laugh at how “Karen” makes the African American married protagonist couple look less-than-smart with their terrible decisions in how to deal with a racist who might as well be wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’m Gonna Git You, Suckas!” Time and time again, these silly spouses—Malik Jeffries (played by Cory Hardrict) and his wife Imani Jeffries (played by Jasmine Burke)—walk right into very obvious traps that are set by the unhinged bigot who wants to make this couple’s existence a living hell.
And don’t play an alcohol drinking game every time this husband and wife call each other “baby” or “babe” in the movie, because you’ll end up with alcohol poisoning. Their vocabulary is so limited, they can’t have a conversation with each other without saying “babe” or “baby.” And the lines of dialogue they utter about being African American sound less like racial pride and more like the Shuck and Jive Handbook of Racial Stereotyping. The movie’s running “joke” is that the Karen in the movie acts exactly like what has become the pop-culture definition of a real-life Karen—the description used for a racist white woman who is quick to call the police or other authority figures on people of color (usually black people), usually with false accusations to get the targets of their hate in trouble.
It should be noted that “Karen” writer/director Daniels is African American. Normally, it wouldn’t be necessary to mention the race of a filmmaker in a movie review, but people should know that an African American conceived this train wreck that uses Black Lives Matter issues for very tacky reasons. This movie isn’t about helping real victims of racial injustice. It’s about a cash grab by jumping on the bandwagon of viral videos that show real-life racist conflicts instigated by real-life Karens.
In “Karen,” white racists are the biggest villains, but this sorry excuse for a movie is also filled with plenty of racially demeaning clichés of African Americans being intellectually inferior to white people. The African American husband and wife, who are at the center of the story (despite the movie’s “Karen” title), kowtow to and are easily manipulated by white racists. Just because an African American wrote and directed “Karen” doesn’t make any of it okay.
In “Karen,” which takes place in the Atlanta area, Malik and Imani have recently moved into an upper-middle-class neighborhood in an unnamed suburb where almost all of the residents are white. Their next-door neighbor is a racist widow named Karen Drexler (played by Taryn Manning), who isn’t happy that she now has to live next door to black people. Karen has two children—17-year-old Kyle (played by Jaxon McHan) and third grader Sarah (played by Norah Elin Murphy), who’s about 8 or 9 years old. Miraculously, the children have not inherited their overbearing mother’s racist beliefs.
But that doesn’t mean that Karen doesn’t have any other racists in her family. It just so happens that Karen has a brother who’s a white supremacist cop named Mike Wind (played by Roger Dorman), and he has a history of racist incidents that include police brutality and other corruption against people who aren’t white. Mike and Karen mention several times that Mike is protected by a secretive “brotherhood” of other white supremacists who work in law enforcement. You know where this story is going to go, of course.
Like a lot of racists, Karen hides her devious intentions behind friendly smiles and a pretense of wanting to keep a certain area “safe” from “threats.” It’s all just Karen code for “I hate people who aren’t white, and I don’t want them around me or in places where I don’t think they should be.”
And that’s exactly the kind of fake demeanor that Karen has when she first meets Malik and Imani on the couple’s move-in day. Karen is about to drive Kyle and Sarah to school, when she sees Malik and Imani, waves at them with a smile from her driveway, and says hello. Imani comments to Malik, “She seems nice.” Malik is a little more skeptical and replies, “Yeah. Real nice.”
Malik says he’s slightly uncomfortable about Malik and Imani being the only black people in this neighborhood, because it’s named after a U.S. Civil War soldier who fought to keep slavery legal in America. He asks Imani, “Why is our subdivision named Harvey Hill Plantation? You know that’s a Confederate soldier, right?” (The subdivision sign actually just says Harvey Hill.) Imani replies, Baby, don’t worry about it. I will get on the HOA [Home Owners Association] Board, and I will petition to change that.”
Wait, not so fast, Imani. Did you know that Karen is the president of the HOA Board? You and Malik are about to find out the hard way. On the day that they move into their new house, Malik hugs Imani and asks her, “Who would’ve thought? Us living in a white neighborhood.” Imani replies in one of many atrocious lines of dialogue, “If nothing changes, then nothing will change.”
Just so viewers know how rare it is for black people to live in this neighborhood, the movie has a scene with Karen talking to a HOA Board member named Jan (played by Mary Christina Brown) in front of Karen’s house, on the day that Malik and Imani have moved to the neighborhood. Jan (who is Asian) says to Karen as they both observe the couple’s move-in activities: “I think it’s about time we had some diversity to this neighborhood. I’ve been living here for nearly 10 years, and I can’t remember a black family ever living on this block.”
Almost immediately after they move in, Malik and Imani see Karen installing surveillance cameras on the exterior of her house. Imani naïvely comments on Karen’s sudden concern to have this security system in place: “I don’t know why. There’s almost no crime in this neighborhood. I checked.” Hey, Imani: Too bad you didn’t check to see if you were moving in next door to a racist.
Malik and Imani have plans to start a family, but later in the story, someone in the couple has second thoughts, due to fear of all the “pandemics and racism” going on, and because the couple’s long-term finances are kind of shaky. Imani, who makes more money than Malik does, is described as a “successful blogger.” She works from home and is seen occasionally doing some blogging on her laptop.
Malik runs a community center in East Point, Georgia (a predominantly African American city), but the movie never shows him doing any work. It’s just a perpetuation of a negative stereotype that African American men are lazy. And it’s also a missed opportunity to show Malik doing something positive in his job.
Instead, the movie shows Malik being more concerned about getting his wife “barefoot and pregnant” (yes, he uses those exact words) and hiding his habit of smoking marijuana. There’s also a cringeworthy moment when Malik and Imani are together and he congratulates himself for “putting a ring on it,” as if he deserves some kind of prize for being an African American man who made the commitment of marriage.
The first time that Karen has a conversation with either spouse, it’s with Malik, when she chastises him for leaving a garbage can out on the curb of his house. She refuses to shake his hand, because she says that she’s a “germaphobe.” Karen informs Malik in a fake perky voice that the neighborhood’s HOA handbook has a rule that residents’ trash bins must be taken off the streets immediately after the garbage has been collected.
Apparently, Karen’s outdoor surveillance cameras weren’t big-enough clues to Malik and Imani that Karen wants to spy on her African American neighbors and target them for some racist hate. And so, what does Malik do? He decides to smoke weed in his car one night on a street right outside his house and Karen’s house.
And because Karen likes to lurk around and startle people many times in this movie, you just know she’s going to see Malik smoking pot. Sure enough, she catches him in the act, and asks him not to smoke marijuana in a place where her kids might possibly see and/or smell this activity. Karen easily figures out that Malik doesn’t want Imani to know that he’s smoking weed, so Karen tells Malik with a smirk that she won’t tell Imani. But you just know that Karen is going to eventually use this “secret” against Malik.
Karen then takes the opportunity to question Malik about his and Imani’s backgrounds and what they do for a living. Malik says of his community center work: “I love what I do for my people.” He also says of Imani, “My wife’s a successful blogger. She’s the shit. She’s a strong black woman. A queen.” The conversation quickly turns sour when Karen comments to Malik, “All you guys seem to be migrating from the cities and infiltrating the suburban neighborhoods.”
Malik expresses his discomfort at her use of the word “infiltrating,” because it’s Karen’s way of saying that when black people move into a mostly white neighborhood, she thinks it’s some kind of infestation. (Karen has a backstory that reveals why she hates black people.) After her “infiltrating” comment, Malik cuts the conversation short. You’d think that Malik would try to avoid being around Karen after that. But no.
At this point, there are no longer a few small red flags pointing out that Karen is a racist. There are billboard-sized neon warning signs flashing everywhere that she’s a hardcore bigot, but Malik acts like he wants to please Karen. Shortly after Karen caught him smoking marijuana, she is outside in her driveway with her car. She asks Malik to fill her car with antifreeze, and he willingly obliges.
Someone with common sense would wonder why Karen couldn’t pour the antifreeze in the car herself, but Malik is too dimwitted for that type of logic. Karen’s request is a set-up, of course, and she spills some of the antifreeze on Malik’s shirt. She insists that he go inside her house to clean himself, and she tries to get him to take off his shirt. Malik goes into her house, when he could’ve easily cleaned himself in his own house.
It’s really just a poorly written way for Malik to be inside Karen’s house so that he discovers something that finally convinces him that Karen is up to no good. Even after Malik finds out and tells Imani, they still let Karen into their lives. Imani even brings a pecan pie over to Karen to try to befriend her, but Karen throws the pie away as soon as Imani leaves. (And no, this isn’t like the famous pie in “The Help.”)
Later, Karen invites herself to Malik and Imani’s housewarming party, where Karen is the only white person there out of about five or six guests. It doesn’t take Karen long to insult everyone there. One of the guests is Malik’s good friend Justice (played by Lorenzo Cromwell), who can’t believe that Karen is at the party, because he had an racist run-in with her a few days earlier at a restaurant where he had been having a jovial lunch with a male friend.
This lunch meeting was going well, until Karen—who was sitting at a nearby table with her snobby blonde friend Beth (played by Milly Sanders)—complained to Justice that he and his friend were laughing too loud and told them to be quiet. “If you don’t comply, I’ll tell the manager,” Karen warned an incredulous Justice. And when Justice and his friend dared to laugh again, the next thing you know, Karen summoned the manager, and Justice and his friend were thrown out of the restaurant.
At the housewarming party, Karen offends everyone when the conversation turns to police brutality against black people. Justice says, “Black lives matter.” Karen’s response is very Karen-like. She says, “All lives matter.” Karen mentions that she comes from a family of law enforcement, and she adds: “Bad things happen when people don’t comply.”
Karen isn’t done with her racist lecture, when she says, “You people are always angry. Just relax!” Justice replies, “We’re not angry. We’re fed up.” Karen snaps back, “The problem is I can’t tell the difference.” And when someone talks about slavery, Karen interrupts, “Why do you always bring up slavery? I’m not kidding! That was so long ago! Me, personally, I’ve never owned a slave in my entire life!”
Karen adds with a sneer: “The bottom line, guys. If you don’t like it here, go back.” Malik asks, “Go back where?” Karen replies, “Africa.” This last comment is the last straw, and Malik and Imani tell Karen to leave. But do you think Karen will stop trying to harass Malik and Imani? Of course not.
In case it wasn’t clear enough that Karen hates the Black Lives Matter movement, the movie’s opening scene shows her taking a water hose and a push broom to erase a Black Lives Matter slogan written in chalk on a street. It’s something that’s happened plenty of times in real life from bigots who try to destroy legally allowed Black Lives Matter murals and other artistic expressions of this civil rights movement. And just like many Karens with no self-awareness, this movie’s Karen keeps insisting that she’s not a racist.
Karen, who is a homemaker with way too much time on her hands, later has a hissy fit because Imani and Malik put their trash bin out on their curb the day before the garbage was to be collected, instead of the morning of the garbage collection. Karen gets so angry about it that she kicks the trash bin hard when no one is looking, and the trash gets strewn on Imani and Malik’s driveway. Karen runs back into her house before anyone can see her.
Imani goes outside to see what the noise was about and to clean up the mess. Almost immediately after this act of vandalism, Karen’s daughter Sarah comes out, right on cue in a bad movie, and offers to help Imani. Some of the garbage is broken glass. Imani doesn’t seem that concerned that this child could get cut by the glass, because she says Sarah can help her but she just needs to avoid the glass.
How about being a responsible adult and declining the offer to help, so as not to risk a child getting cut by glass on your property? It’s just an example of how idiotic this movie makes Imani look when she does illogical things. Karen is the type of parent who would definitely sue if one of her children was hurt somewhere.
Sarah starts talking about her “boyfriend” at school named Kobe, who is a classmate of hers. Sarah tells Imani that Sarah and Kobe have an innocent romance, but she confesses to Imani that she has to keep her relationship with Kobe a secret from Karen because Kobe is black. Sarah also states the obvious: She says that her mother Karen doesn’t like black people. And this is where more of this movie’s stupidity is on display: Even though Imani has seen Karen’s racism firsthand in more than one incident, Imani is still shocked when Sarah says that Karen doesn’t like Imani because Imani is black.
“Karen” is essentially a checklist of every single cliché of what Karen and her racist cop brother Mike could do to harass and intimidate Malik and Imani. Mike’s cop partner is a rookie named Officer Hill (played by Brandon Sklenar), who is not a racist and is disgusted by what Mike is trying to do the Jeffries couple. Malik and Imani end up hiring a prominent civil rights lawyer named Charles Wright (played by Gregory Alan Williams), who has a personal reason for wanting to see justice served to Karen and Mike.
“Karen” is a low-budget film. but that still doesn’t excuse the ludicrous way that the movie makes it look like Mike and Officer Hill are the only police officers in the entire Atlanta metropolitan area who could possibly interact with Malik and Imani on a regular basis. (There a few other cops in the movie, but they’re mostly background characters.) Observant viewers will also notice that Mike and Officer Hill work for the Atlanta Police Department. And yet, these two Atlanta cops act as if they work for the suburban city where Malik and Imani live, even though that city is out of these Atlanta cops’ jurisdiction. It’s just sloppy screenwriting that disregards realistic details.
Manning’s depiction of the racist villain Karen is very campy, which is an odd mismatch with the rest of the cast members’ serious portrayals of their characters. (Unfortunately, almost everyone in this movie displays awful acting skills.) Manning has a manic comedic energy in many scenes—so much so, that you almost expect to hear a pre-recorded laugh track when she’s in a scene. Manning and Hardrict are two of this movie’s producers, which means they paid money to embarrass themselves in this Black Lives Matter exploitation movie.
At one point in the movie, there’s a nod to real-life Black Lives Matter incidents. There’s a press conference scene with Imani, Malik, their attorney Charles and real-life civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who has represented the families of police brutality victims George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Crump is given an executive producer credit in this movie, probably as a trade-off for him getting a role as an actor in this movie.
Also in this press conference scene is jazz musician Keyon Harrold, whose then-14-year-old son, Keyon Harrold Jr., was involved in his own “Karen” incident in real life. In December 2020, Harrold and his son were guests at the Arlo Hotel in New York City’s SoHo district. Keyon Sr. and Keyon Jr. were minding their own business, when Keyon Jr. was racially profiled, wrongfully accused of theft, tackled, and physically assaulted by a woman named Miya Ponsetto, who was nicknamed SoHo Karen after this incident was caught on video, went viral, and got widespread media attention.
Ponsetto had accused Keyon Jr. of stealing her phone, without any evidence that Keyon Jr. (whom she had never met before) had stolen her phone. A male manager at the Arlo Hotel automatically took her side when an almost-hysterical Ponsetto ordered Keyon Jr. to give his phone to her. When Keyon Jr. refused to give his phone to her, Ponsetto lunged at him and attacked. It was later discovered that Ponsetto had actually left her phone in a taxi, and the phone was eventually returned to her by the taxi driver.
Ponsetto was arrested and pleaded not guilty to unlawful imprisonment as a hate crime, aggravated harassment and endangering the welfare of a child. Meanwhile, the Harrold family is suing her and the hotel. Crump is also the attorney for the Harrold family. At the time of this writing, the outcomes of these cases were still pending. In this movie’s press conference scene, Keyon Harrold Sr. plays a trumpet medley of “America the Beautiful” and “We Shall Overcome.” You can’t make this stuff up.
One of the biggest problems with “Karen” is that this movie can’t decide if it wants to be a drama or a horror flick. “Karen” is mostly a drama, but the entire movie is still appalling. In the movie’s attempt at horror, the Karen character is often filmed in scenes bathed in horror-like red cinematography. And when Karen appears on screen, generic-sounding horror music starts playing. The only horror that people will experience if they watch this atrocity until the very end is knowing that they wasted their time on this disgraceful junk.
Quiver Distribution will release “Karen” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 3, 2021. BET and BET Her will premiere “Karen” on September 14, 2021.